Health · Politics · Social Justice

What You Need to Know About Abortion Doulas and Their Vital Work

Originally published at on August 6, 2018.

While most people have heard of birth doulas and generally understand their support role during pregnancy, labor, and after, very few have heard of abortion doulas and know even less about what they do to support people terminating pregnancies.

Gina Martinez Valentín first heard about abortion doulas from Hip Mama magazine 20 years ago: “There was an article about a young single queer mom who was showing up and helping her friends when they were having an abortion, to offer support. For unrelated reasons the mom ended up dying, and that’s when I knew I was going to do this.”

Not only is she a working abortion doula now, Martinez Valentín is also co-founder of the Colorado Doula Project, an anti-racist, anti-oppression, full-spectrum reproductive health support non-profit that offers birth, abortion, and miscarriage doula services as well as postpartum and fertility assistance.

Even though abortions have been a part of reproductive health since the dawn of time, it’s only been in recent history that access to this important care has been denied and even criminalized. In spite of abortion being legal by federal law, many states-such as Ohio, Texas, Iowa, Arkansas-have been restricting abortion access at the local level in draconian measures that negatively affect women’s reproductive health and choices.

Because Martinez Valentín lives in an area where reproductive health services have been dwindling, as an abortion doula she often helps people coming in from out of state to access abortion. Her collective offers pick-ups and drop-offs to and from the airport, provides free lodging and food, as well as any other local assistance the person might need during their stay.

When it comes to the procedure itself Martinez Valentin tells me, “We as abortion doulas assess what people want and follow their lead.” This can range from telling the client about everything that is happening as it’s going on, distracting the client if that’s what they’d prefer, or even something as small as holding a person’s hand while the termination is happening and afterward.

Martinez Valentin’s advice to her clients goes well beyond a doctor’s office: “We let them know if they can relax it will go faster and hurt less, and this is true with everything. If we are clenching then everything will hurt more, it’s the same as in life.” Martinez Valentín’s other major message to her clients is that having a community is a huge part of radical self-care, and she encourages them to seek out even just one safe person they can talk to after her role in the procedure is over.

Jhilya Mayas is a trained full-service doula based in Los Angeles: “I’m a resource for someone who has selected a termination, to help their understanding [of] what the process looks like and sounds like, whether they elect a surgical procedure or pharmaceutical.”

Mayas echoes Martinez Valentín when she tells me, “I hold space for people who have made the decision or had the decision made for them.” Martinez Valentín and Mayas both discuss the problem of reproductive coercion and Mayas says, “ It’s easy to assume that someone who is choosing a termination is something they to do. That isn’t always the case.” Mayas goes further when she tells me, “ There are people who are pregnant and abort because they aren’t in a position to have it. Some really want the pregnancy but are being forced or coerced to terminate.”

While abortions are often treated as a dirty secret, something to be ashamed of and feel guilty about because of societal stigma, those feelings are not always present for those seeking to terminate a pregnancy. Some also assume that all abortions come with extreme trauma, both physically and psychologically, but the event is often far more nuanced than this.

Martinez Valentin explains, “There is lots of misunderstanding that women will feel sad, hurt, after an abortion, which is not always what happens. Often what makes them hurt is actually the pressure to keep a baby they might not want.” Another thing that makes abortion difficult can be the presence of anti-choice protesters outside clinics, shouting and waving offensive signs. “It’s not necessarily the decision to abort itself that provokes complicated feelings,” Martinez Valentín explains. “ Those who say that abortion equals regret, well there is a lot of regret when some people have children.”

Martinez Valentín told me that the overwhelming feeling most people experience after a termination is the relief that it’s been taken care of; this is rarely something we see in media portrayals of abortion. Demystifying the actual process of abortions is another facet of an abortion doula’s responsibilities. Because there are so many misperceptions about how one should feel during the process of an abortion-from decision to termination-people often are surprised by what they feel afterward.

“In doula work there is a lot of ‘Is this normal? Should i be feeling this way?’ and the answer is usually YES,” Mayas says. “Unless you feel suicidal or want to kill everyone around you, whatever you are feeling and thinking is fine. We work to not force other people to be comfortable when they aren’t. If you’re still feeling it, you’re still feeling it.” An abortion doula can offer different strategies going forward when a person doesn’t want to feel certain things anymore, but Mayas stresses, “Feelings are normal. Everything you’re doing is normal.”

And that includes getting an abortion. Abortion doulas work to normalize the termination process from start to finish. Martinez Valentín often recommends using creativity to process all the complicated, unexpected, and often difficult breadth of emotions that arise during the before and after a termination.

For midwife and herbalist Laura, one of the most important roles of an abortion doula is to assure a client’s informed consent. “I don’t feel triggered by the subject matter,” she tells me, “because I feel strongly in a person’s right to body autonomy.” Laura explains, “No one should be forced to have a pregnancy they don’t want, or one they’re not ready for. No child should be forced to exist, if the parents would be unhappy about it. And I’m adopted. I still feel this way.”

Another of an abortion doula’s most necessary personal qualities is the ability to de-center themselves from the event they’re participating in. An abortion doula is a compassionate and empathetic bystander whose presence and involvement is determined solely by their client and their needs.

Like me, Mayas has never been pregnant or had an abortion. “I have no personal experience that gets inserted into someone else’s experience,” she says. “I’m a detached bystander.” Abortion doulas are present to reaffirm a client’s control over their own body and future, and in that important vein, it is up to the client to decide the level of their doula’s involvement.

“This work is about radical love,” Martinez Valentín says. “Radical acceptance. There is never any question or discussion from us about why the person wants an abortion. If they do want to talk about it, they can talk about without judgment too.”

Mayas says that often the mere fact of being aware of abortion doulas can help people during their termination. “ Sometimes just knowing an abortion doula is an option is enough to get people through. It can inspire confidence in one’s own ability just knowing we are here to help if needed.”

And abortion doulas are easier to find than you’d think. Martinez Valentín tells me that there are abortion doula collectives all over the U.S., and if you ask around you’ll probably find one in your community or nearby that you didn’t even know about.

Ultimately, the bigger picture of abortion doula work is the promotion of reproductive justice for all. “ What resonates with me most about reproductive justice is the intersectionality about it,” Martinez Valentín says, the passion in her voice fierce. “It’s not the binary of pro-life and pro-choice. Looking at what reproductive justice really means is messy, and involves the autonomy of people-like communities of color, LGBTQIA, disabled-that some might not want to see survive and thrive.”

Mayas says, “Abortion is part of the spectrum of reproductive health, and we need to move away from judgment. This work is about taking out the assumptions. What if we said ‘Tell me more,’ and ‘How can I help?’ any time someone told us something instead of pre-judging their needs? It would change the world.”

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